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Portuguese brave lockdown to re-elect President Rebelo de Sousa

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Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won re-election Sunday according to media projections and partial results, after a poll held at the height of the country's coronavirus crisis.

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa speaks after wining his presidential re-election in Lisbon, on January 24, 2021. – The current head of state, a 72-year-old former law professor who made a name for himself as a political talk show host on television, received 61.3% of the votes, according to the partial results obtained after 98.8% of the precincts were counted. Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP

The centre-right incumbent, who had been widely expected to win another term, took 61.6 percent of the vote, with almost all the results declared.

Socialist challenger Ana Gomes came in second with 12.24 percent of the vote, ahead of far-right candidate Andre Ventura in third.

In his victory speech Rebelo de Sousa pledged to make the fight against coronavirus his "first priority".

Portugal recorded its worst daily coronavirus death toll on Sunday, with more than 85,000 infections and almost 1,500 deaths reported in the past week.

That is the highest rate worldwide in proportion to its population of more than 10 million, according to an AFP tally based on government figures.

Opinion polls had pointed to a first-round victory for Rebelo de Sousa, a former political commentator known for candid moments like sharing a meal with homeless people and plunging into the sea to help girls whose canoe had capsized.

Turnout reached 35.4 percent by 1600 GMT, only slightly lower than at the same time five years ago, soothing fears that abstentions might top 70 percent.

In the capital Lisbon, voters queued outside polling stations and were let in one by one under coronavirus social distancing rules.

"To those who can and who want to vote, overcome your fears," Rebelo de Sousa said after casting his ballot in Celorico de Basto, his stronghold in the northern region of Minho.

National lockdown

One voter, architect Jose Barra, 54, told AFP: "Nothing would have stopped me from voting, but I think elderly people, for example, will be discouraged both by the virus and by the queues."

As mail-in ballots are not well-established in Portugal, early voting was available last Sunday, drawing nearly 200,000 voters.

Portugal has been under a second national lockdown for the past 10 days aimed at stemming a surge in coronavirus cases.

Almost every new day brings a fresh record in case numbers, and the government has now shut schools for two weeks on top of shops and restaurants.

Keep it to one round

The president has the power to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections — a pivotal constitutional role with a minority government in power.

In his final campaign speech, Rebelo de Sousa urged voters to back him so as to avoid a second round.

That would "spare the Portuguese people from the election being stretched out over three crucial weeks" — time that could be better spent slowing the pandemic, the former minister and co-founder of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) said.

"An abstention rate of 70 percent would be enough to make a second round almost unavoidable," the 72-year-old had warned.

Pre-election polls had given Rebelo de Sousa 58 percent of the first-round vote — far ahead of Gomes and Ventura, on 15 and 10 percent.

A first-round re-election would fit in with Portugal's experience since adopting democratic government in 1974, with all four of the president's predecessors securing a second five-year term this way.

Far-right challenge

Rebelo de Sousa's popularity with voters has not suffered from his indulgence of Prime Minister Antonio Costa's socialist minority government.

He is so well-liked that the socialist party didn't even bother putting up a candidate, denying its backing to 66-year-old Gomes, a former diplomat and European lawmaker turned anti-corruption activist.

Meanwhile, Ventura, the 38-year-old founder of right-wing populist party Chega — "Enough" — had said he was in the running to "crush the Left", which fielded three out of the seven candidates.

Portugal has so far to a large degree not seen the anti-establishment surges from the right that have reshaped the political landscape in many larger EU nations in recent years.

Ventura — an ally of Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini — secured his party's first and only parliamentary seat in the 2019 legislative elections, winning the backing of 70,000 voters or 1.3 percent.

"For the first time, an openly anti-system party has disrupted the traditional right, with nearly half a million votes," he said Sunday as the ballots were being counted.


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